Better Life Mobile – the accidental MVNO. A story of digital inclusion and the homeless

A few weeks back I was given the honour of joining the judging panel for the MVNOs Dragons Den at the MVNOs World Congress.

In some ways I had no idea what to expect. Often great innovation comes from unlikely places. Nearly always it comes from needing to find a solution to a problem. I knew that from watching Dragon’s Den. I’ve watched over the years and often wondered why no one has come up with an idea before. The answer for that usually comes down to the right technology, the right know-how and, most importantly, tenacity.

The panellists witnessed a hard fought contest, with some amazing contenders, including finalist Mobius Networks,  a worthy finalist with its IoT connectivity proposition for mobile NHS breast screening. A prime example of where the application of technology can overcome a connectivity problem and save lives.

But the victors were Adrian Panozzo and Russel Barnes with their incredible venture Better Life Mobile.

Their story is an amazing and heart-warming one. Two guys, with no telco experience, who wanted to give something back. They are successful business people – Adrian in the Australian Football League, and Russel in software. Their paths probably would never have crossed had it not been for their mutual passion for volunteering with the homeless community in Melbourne.

It’s there that the notion of digital inclusion really hit home. People who had fallen on hard times needed a means to access online government services – like doctor appointments and to find a job. The pair could see that when you are homeless a phone is a necessity not a luxury, and a pandemic only heightens this need. You fall ill, you can’t video call a doctor.

However, owning a phone and running it often contributes to the debt people are in. Adrian and Russel could see that being connected to help get yourself out of a rut becomes a viscous circle.

Believing there had to be another way the pair decided to run a pilot giving 100 SIMs to people in need. Every person who received a SIM received one that suited what they could afford and what they would need. It wasn’t charitable but it did set out with the mindset of fairness and ethics.

Soon there was demand stretching well beyond the 100 SIM pilot. It was clear the 2.6m experiencing homelessness and other forms of disadvantage, and 5.1m people receiving government support in Australia needed a service like this. But on approaching operators for help the knock back they expected but hoped wouldn’t happen came. The shutters either went down because the homeless were considered too high risk, or it became a conversation about how much money could be made now there was a captive loyal market. It was so far removed from the notion of fairness and dignity Adrian and Russel wanted to exude.

It was never their intention to launch a network of their own but is was the only option to keep the project alive. They needed an MVNO that could stand commercially on its own two feet. So changing their pitch they went back in to the operators, starting with Telstra Wholesale following a chance meeting a few years before. With the help of Telstra Wholesale, who understood the social impact ahead of commercials, they launched Better Life Mobile.

They have a range of plans targeted to suit individual customer needs, with empathetic customer support, and one crucial element of their offer is that they recommend the best plan to SAVE their customers money. Better Life Mobile went on to form partnerships with the social support organisations so payments could come from financial support people had access to.

Kudos to the team at Telstra Wholesale for seeing through the preconceived ideas of how an operator should run, and understanding that if done differently there could be a different outcome to addressing digital inclusion. Now Better Life Mobile helps thousands of homeless people to access a better life. Disadvantaged people helped in this away are not a risk. They stay connected. The business is growing and the value it gives is far more than financial.

Some of you will know I often fundraise for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, a veteran charity helping many people like those Better Life helps. I couldn’t help be drawn to the impact they have had in a relatively short space of time, driven by the values of dignity and fairness.

I also love this on a professional level and have found a perfect case study for my MVNO training workshops and client proposition work. Better Life Mobile has approached this in exactly the way that I advise clients to approach developing an MVNO business and proposition. They started with a real and under-served customer need and built a proposition that matched it and delivered genuine customer value.

Plus, like all good MVNOs, they have built a strong business from addressing a niche that none of the networks were interested in. They are now bringing incredibly loyal, good value, incremental customers to the Telstra Wholesale network. By treating these customers fairly and with dignity the business continues to grow, and society benefits.

The thing that struck me most about the pitch to the Den was that this MVNO is hugely “exportable”. There are over 700,000 officially homeless people in Europe, but 112 million at risk of poverty or social exclusion. The stories of individuals who have been helped show that there is a lot more good that can be done.

Adrian and Russel believe in what they do. They do it for all the right motivations. They would be willing to export a Better Life Mobile into new markets, so I hope that my MVNO or operator contacts will recognise this and see the potential for social responsibility. It’s a great initiative that would allow operators to do good, get some real brand love and serve a segment that will pay their way and deliver a return if they are treated right. Frankly in a way we all would want to be treated.

If you want an introduction or what to find out more then give me a call and I’ll put you in touch.

James Gray

About James Gray

James has over 20 years of experience working in the telecoms and retail industries. He is an expert in subscription-based business models, CRM, direct and indirect channel management and major proposition development and launches. He has held a number of Marketing Director and Consumer Director roles.